June 29, 2020; British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
In Great Britain, Will Gompertz of the BBC notes that while many British museums have expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a question remains of what actions will follow the words, as many are beneficiaries of ill-gotten imperial plunder.
Professor Dan Hicks is a senior curator at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford. Hicks, notes Gompertz, “is a leading voice among museum professionals calling for the return (restitution) of contested cultural objects that are currently held in the UK’s national and local municipal collections.”
“In this country you’re never more than 150 miles away from a looted African object,” Hicks says.
Hicks and his colleagues are also re-evaluating, re-contextualizing. and re-presenting many objects from the perspective of the culture from where the display objects came, rather than through a white British cultural lens.
Hicks is especially convinced of the need to return objects taken from Africa. “Where it is clear they were taken as trophies of war, and however well you rewrite labels and re-tell history, you’re not going to be able to tell a story other than one about military victory. In those cases, we need to work towards a restitution process,” Hicks explains.
The so-called Benin Bronzes are one of the more high-profile examples of looted artifacts, taken by British soldiers following a murderous raid on the ancient Kingdom of Benin (now part of Nigeria) in 1897.
Many of the challenges British museums face will sound familiar to American ears. “Diversity isn’t just putting Blacks or people of color in institutions,” playwright Bonnie Greer, former deputy chair of the British Museum, tells Gompertz. “Listen to them, implement what they say.”
Sara Wajid is head of engagement at the Museum of London. She is also a member of Museum Detox, a network of people of color who work in museums. She notes that, “In most museums the place where you see Black staff is in cleaning and security. You won’t see them in curatorial departments, you won’t see them in management.”
For example, the British Museum has a curatorial staff of about 150 people, none of whom are Black. While Blacks only make up 3.3 percent of the population, the fact that the number of Black curators at the museum is zero is still stunning.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, claims that Britain is “at the forefront of making museums inclusive,” but the numbers would suggest that, as in the United States, a lot of work remains to be done.
As Gompertz observes, the dependency of British museums on racism and imperialism runs deep. “As with several of the UK’s cultural institutions, the British Museum is the product of the country’s colonial past, including its participation in the slave trade,” Gompertz writes. He adds that it was slave plantation wealth from the West Indies that funded the museum’s initial collection.
According to Wajid, the police murder of George Floyd and the global protests it spawned have led to “some very serious and unusually frank conversations…between BAME [Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic] staff networks and managers and leaders—most of whom are white—about their stance with regards to Black Lives Matter, to anti-racism, and to the work of decolonizing museum collections.”
“I’ve been working and campaigning towards greater equality in the culture sector for the past 25 years, and the kind of honesty and deeply uncomfortable conversations that I’ve heard [over the past three weeks] are astonishing.”
Hicks also says that he sees a shift, at least in attitudes: “It was acceptable, maybe a generation ago, to talk about loans and facing up to Empire, using these objects to tell the story better. There’s a new generation now who really don’t buy that.”—Steve Dubb